SAG HARBOR and SANTA BARBARA–Culinary travel is always a pleasure, but it can lead to gnawing nostalgia. Yes, we’re happy to be returned home, close to family, friends and familiar flavors. But, personally, I’m pining for the insanely tasty Central Cali tacos that I ate morning, noon and night–no joke, I ate them for breakfast, topped with chilis, and washed them down with coffee–while attending the Edible publishers meeting in Santa Barbara.
This longing felt most acute earlier today when I stopped in to Cilantro, the Mexican takeout in Sag Harbor, and settled on the veggie tacos. They were fine and sustaining. But the tortillas weren’t pressed by hand (they weren’t even corn), there was little flavor and no kick, and the per-taco cost was nearly twice as much as the Santa Barbara variety.
Keep in mind that here on the East End, our traditional Mexican food offerings are still limited. We don’t have the tiny taquerias in Hell’s Kitchen or the growing Mexican food scene in Harlem or the tortilla triangle and Sunset Park strip of our friends in Brooklyn. There is La Fondita in Amagansett (open all winter for the first time in recent memory), the pan-Latin De Canella also in Amagansett, and many lesser offerings. In the last issue of Edible East End, Zachary Lazar–of New York Times mag-Girl Talk-mashup-profiling fame–described the wonderful tamales now popping up at not just one, but two delis in North Sea, a community on Little Peconic Bay. The chef at one used to be the chef at the other, but a difference of tamale philosophy forced one chef to strike out on his own.
In contrast to the East End, Santa Barbara has a particularly vibrant Mexican food culture, not to mention a heavenly growing season that yields all sorts of Mediterranean goodies like olives, grapes, citrus and nuts, that were on display at the local food and drink gala organized by Edible Santa Barbara at the Maritime History Museum. An abalone, mushroom and winter greens stirfry went particularly well with the local wheat beer on tap. And during the Edible publishers meeting everyone snacked on fragrant and supersweet Pixie Tangerines from Ojai, where the first Edible was launched back in 2002.
But, back to the tacos. On the first day of the publishers meeting, a handful of us from Empire State Edibles, including Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley, Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn and the East End visited La Super-Rica Taqueria, which Saveur once called the best place to get tacos outside of Mexico. We cued up next to tattooed, texting locals to get into the popular aqua-tinged shack with an extensive selection of tacos, tamales and gorditas. Tears came to our eyes when we saw the corn tortillas pressed to order (by hand), the swollen chile rellenos sizzling on the grill and the horchata, jamaica and fresh watermelon juice on tap. Veggie tamales and assorted pork tacos were the consensus favorites.
If Super-Rica seemed stripped down, Lilly’s, on the other side of town, was even more bare bones, with an even more miniscule kitchen and an even tinier menu. Behind the counter a few cooks were grilling onions and various bits of meat. The nose-to-tail choices included assorted cow parts, including cachete (cheek), labio (lips), lengua (tongue) and tripa (tripe). Tacos (beautifully photographed by the New York Times here, and on Flickr here and here) were $1.40 a piece; $1.50 for tripe, which is only available on Fridays. The tacos, paired with Jarritos fruit-flavored soda, weren’t just delicious. They were also unbelievably simple–a mash of meat in the fold of two tortillas.
We dined there and then returned a few hours later to pick up an order of 50 tacos for a late-night, post-Eddy awards dinner party. Our party guests seemed more intent on the California wine than the scrumptious chile toppped tacos. Never fear. They revived exquisitely in the microwave and were a perfect hangover antidote. Santa Barbara really is a touch of heaven.